Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me. (Psalm 51: 7-10 NLT)
I read a quote about Ash Wednesday recently, and although I don’t remember it exactly, it kind of stuck with me. The quote was from a Roman Catholic bishop who said “We don’t take the ashes on our forehead to mark us as holy, we take them to remind ourselves that we are a community of sinners.”
That’s a great quote. Where I live, in Utah, it’s easy to feel “special” or unique on Ash Wednesday. Most of the population here belongs to a different faith, and sporting a cross of ashes on one’s forehead is a pretty surefire way to get some weird looks. After our Ash Wednesday service, many people from our large Methodist church go to a local restaurant for dessert, and we’re often joined by some folks from one of the local Catholic churches. It can be a bit of a shock for other folks who are there, and if you’re not careful, you kind of bask in the “look at me, look how holy I am” attitude. Yuck.
But that’s really not the idea behind Ash Wednesday at all. It’s not about slapping some ashes on your forehead and being PROUD of it. It should be the exact opposite, actually. We are sinners. We constantly fall short of God’s expectations of us, and this is a time to remind ourselves, and our community, of that very real fact.
For my Lenten devotions this year I’ll be doing Adam Hamilton’s “24 Hours That Changed the World Devotional” focused on the last 24 hours of Christ’s life. In the book that accompanies the devotionals, Hamilton constantly urges us to see ourselves in the story in the roles of different people: Peter, Judas, John, Pilate, Barabbas, and even the Roman soldiers who tortured and mocked Jesus.
That’s right, even the Roman Soldiers.
That sounds a little extreme though, doesn’t it? Picture those guards beating Jesus with a whip, probably a whip with multiple lashes embedded with metal, bone, or stone shards that not only bruised but tore flesh from the victim. Imagine hitting him in the face, or placing the crown of thorns upon his head. This man who was meek, loving, and gentle, who never hurt anyone and who healed many, and you’re just going to town on him.
You couldn’t do that, right? I couldn’t do that, right?
I don’t know, perhaps we should consider that for a moment. Look at how many people turned out in droves yesterday to vote for Donald Trump, a man who is unabashedly sexist, racist, and utterly hostile to anyone who disagrees with his extreme positions. Exit polling data showed that 66 percent of Republicans who voted in the New Hampshire primary were in favor of banning Muslims from entering the United States. Seriously, 66 percent! People have been openly mocked and some beaten at Trump rallies.
Think about the Nazis. Do you really think that each and every one of them was evil to the core? What about the guards at places like Auschwitz? Were they born hating Jews and wanting to kill them, was that bred into them? Of course not, yet they were capable, and the truth is that we are all capable of doing some pretty bad things given the proper circumstances.
That is something we have to come to grips with, both during Lent and throughout the year as well. We definitely believe in God’s mercy and grace, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for not examining ourselves, our nature, and our shortcomings. Most of us probably treat someone poorly or at least unfairly everyday, even if we don’t quite realize it. Here’s what Adam Hamilton has to say about it on page 86 of “24 Hours That Changed the World:”
Ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary and awful things. Given the right combination of ideology, authority, and gradual desensitization, all of us can become monsters, capable of destroying others with weapons ranging from words to gas chambers. It is a reality we must face and guard against, looking instead to God and trying to understand who He has called us to be.
That’s part of what Ash Wednesday and Lent is about, reminding ourselves that we are sinners, and that we are capable of doing some very evil things. Through examination and the grace and power of Christ, we can guard against that and hopefully set ourselves on the path to more fully realizing God’s deepest dreams and desires for us as his people, called by His Name.
So maybe you won’t go take the ashes today, but even if you don’t, try to see yourself in the role of the Roman Guards, of Judas, of Pilate and think about how you act in the world around you.
What should you do differently? What habits need to be changed? What is hiding in the deepest, darkest part of your soul? Lent invites us to let the light of Christ shine in and help us examine and better ourselves, if we just let it.
May you have a blessed and fruitful Lenten observance, and may the peace of Christ dwell with you all.